The writer is director of the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics. The department oversees the state’s 81 public-use airports, manages three airports and staffs a team of pilots providing air transportation for state officials.
The summer of 2006 was exceptionally dry in western Nebraska. In late July of that year, five wildfires erupted, threatening Chadron State College, the town of Chadron, and the entire western region of the state. With dry, windy conditions present, the fires quickly made it to the edge of the campus of Chadron State College, burning more than 60,000 acres.
Given Nebraska’s thriving agricultural industry that utilizes aerial application of crop protection products, aerial applicator pilots from across the state were called upon to help contain the flames and protect homes and buildings. Were it not for the use of these aircraft and the help of local first responders and businesses, the damage would have been disastrous to the campus and town.
This is only one example of the countless ways small aircraft support and protect communities throughout Nebraska on a consistent basis.
General aviation aircraft assist operations of law enforcement, emergency medical responders, search and rescue, non-profit organizations, fire fighters, literally saving lives and helping to support local communities in dozens of ways on a daily basis.
Community airports are often transformed into command centers during natural disasters, where they can receive and distribute medical and basic living supplies. Local businesses use these aircraft to visit distant job sites, serve customers, carry out repairs and deliveries and explore new markets in a reasonable amount of time.
Business aviation allows companies to travel where commercial aviation is limited or non-existent, make multiple stops in a single day and carry tools and equipment that would not be allowed on a commercial flight.
Not only that, but the general aviation industry is a significant economic driver for our state and country. Nationwide, the industry accounts for $150 billion in economic activity every year and supports more than 1.2 million jobs.
In Nebraska, general aviation has an economic impact of $721 million and the air transportation industry supports over 5,000 jobs. The general aviation manufacturing sector is one of the only segments of American manufacturing that still has a positive balance of trade.
But the industry has faced many challenges in the past few years, beginning with the recession. The economic downturn hit general aviation especially hard, and the industry has still not fully recovered, although many are optimistic about the next few years.
In the last two years, more than 13,000 jobs have been lost in general aviation manufacturing.
In addition, negative misconceptions have further hurt the industry, while the government’s proposal to institute a “user fee” tax on all take-offs and landings would have a devastating effect on many of our local businesses and small communities throughout Nebraska. Our charter companies, aerial applicators, mercy mission flights and general aviation flights would all be impacted by these taxes, and this would represent a huge administrative burden on aviation businesses that would now be responsible for keeping track of hundreds of new taxes, billed months after the fact.
Thankfully, we have elected officials who have recognized the importance of community airports and general aviation. Recently, Gov. Dave Heineman chose to recognize this vital industry and educate the public about its value by declaring the month of May to be “General Aviation Appreciation Month.” In addition, U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns (co-chair of the Senate General Aviation Caucus) and U.S. Sen. Ben Nelson and other leaders recently highlighted the importance of the industry during a Jobs Creation Day at Duncan Aviation in Lincoln.
We in Nebraska must continue to build on these efforts and urge leaders around the country to recognize the critical importance and lifeline the general aviation industry represents for our nation.